The House and Senate steamed ahead with their motel voucher-free budget, but they fell critically short at the very last hurdle. Thanks to a group of Democrats and Progressives unwilling to evict thousands of Vermonters because “it’s time” or “we just couldn’t find the money,” the House came short of the margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto.
The final tally: 90 votes for the budget, 53 against. House leadership will have to persuade at least three members to abandon their principled stand in order to win an override vote. And Gov. Phil Scott appears bound and determined to deliver a veto.
Update! The official roll call shows that 17 Democratic/Progressive lawmakers voted “No” on the budget. That means leadership will have to flip at least six votes to override a veto, not three. Working on a fresh post about this.
So what happens now? The Legislature is adjourned until June 20, when a three-day override session is scheduled. If Scott does veto the budget, leadership will face a choice: Convince three or more dissidents to join the Dark Side, or craft a compromise on housing that will meet their demands. Looming ahead of it all: The requirement that the state must have a budget in place when the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
One big fly in the ointment: Nearly half of the 1,800 households in the motel voucher program will have already been evicted by then. The program’s eligibility standards tighten at the end of this month, so a last-ditch fight to save the program will come too late for more than 1,000 people facing unsheltered homelessness in less than three weeks.
During the pre-vote debate and in post-vote comments for the record, the doughty band of dissidents made impassioned pleas for a transition plan that will avoid the unhousing of 2,500-plus Vermonters. Some came close to tears during their statements.
Rep. Conor Casey, a longtime Democratic loyalist and former state party executive director, spoke of the state’s failure to help his city of Montpelier deal with homelessness. “We begged the state, ‘you’ve got to give us more or bad things will happen.'” And bad things did happen. “Volunteers are handing out tick spray,” Casey continued. “This is before the program expires. It’s going to get worse.”
Meanwhile, budget supporters made earnest statements about the hard work of budget writers and the many good things in the spending plan — and tried to ignore the calamity that would follow the end of the voucher program. A few tried to shift the blame to the Scott administration. And they’re right; the administration has completely failed to plan a transition away from vouchers. But they’re also wrong, because the Legislature will have been the last body with an opportunity to fix the situation. The ball is in their court. It’s on them now.
The point was underlined by Rep. Mari Cordes, one of the dissident leaders. “We are the people with the power to fix the administration’s lack of will to plan a safe and human transition for more than 2,500 people,” she said. “I am proud of the many great things this budget does. But I am not proud of this. I will not be part of creating another public health emergency for people already struggling to survive.”
The words of some “yes” voters were meant as expressions of concern, but came across as condescension mixed with crocodile tears. “The situation we face is difficult,” said Rep. Tom Stevens, chair of the House General & Housing Committee.
Yeah, it’s “difficult” for representatives supporting an inhumane policy. It’s far beyond “difficult” for the people actually impacted by the decisions taken by Stevens and his colleagues.
“This is how we show up for Vermonters,” boasted Majority Leader Emily Long. “This is how we make government work for the people.”
Well, most of the people anyway. It ain’t workin’ for the homeless.
My own representative, first-term East Montpelier Rep. Ela Chapin, said “my heart is broken” over the end of the voucher program and added that she was “deeply concerned about providers already overstressed.” But she voted yes on the budget. It practically beggared belief.
One dissident pointed out that $14 million is being parked in the capital budget in anticipation of future opportunities to get federal matching funds. That alone could pay for nearly half the cost of the dissidents’ alternative plan. And it’s not as if the state will be lacking in motivation to draw down every available federal match as it becomes available. We go far out of our way to grab for any dollar on offer.
Point being that the money is there. It’s always been there. What’s lacking is the political will to prioritize our unhoused. What’s also lacking is the awareness that ending the voucher program is going to cost more money than continuing it, a point made again by several dissidents.
Oh, almost forgot. Also lacking is an acute sense of the moral crisis on our hands.
None of our elected officials are homeless, or in danger of becoming homeless anytime soon. They all went home tonight to sleep in their beds under their roofs, safe from the elements and the ticks. Perhaps their own comfort, and their own membership in the exclusive club that is the Legislature, has dulled their sensibilities and deranged their moral compasses. They seem far too willing to consign our most vulnerable people to immediate crisis.
It’s not too late to undo all the damage. Let’s hope the dissidents hold their ground, and maybe even grow their numbers. The best hope right now is that leadership will realize they’re in a bind and join the dissidents in adopting a workable plan to secure temporary housing for now and permanent housing as soon as possible.
It can be done. There are workable plans. And thanks to a small number of principled lawmakers, it’s not too late.
Walk a mile in their shoes. Lay a night, lay a week, on their ground, in their car and do it all alone – bring your young children and feed them, clothe them, school them. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Feel what they feel.
Earn your vote.
Then think about it. And reconsider the vote you cast from all your comfort, all your safety.
But you probably won’t. Because you never do.
You just cast your unearned vote and tell them to carry on. Carry on, I’m going home.
There’s still time. You can choose something better.
But if you won’t, and continue your stand against them – every day, please take a look in every mirror in your house and know you are safe and they are not – because you decided it so.